In Regression, a new thriller from writer/director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, The Sea Inside), Ethan Hawke plays Bruce Kenner, a detective in a small Minnesota town who investigates the sexual abuse of a young woman (Emma Watson) by her own father (David Dencik). With the help of a police psychologist (David Thewlis) using experimental regression therapy, Kenner uncovers the possible involvement of a Satanic cult in the case, with wide-reaching and terrifying implications.
Regression touches on the “Satanic Panic” of the early 1980s, when a combination of books and media reports made it seem as if Satan worshipers were at the center of a nationwide epidemic of child killings and sex crimes, with the controversial regression techniques also a contributing factor. For Hawke, the role is not just one of his many as an officer of the law but also right in his wheelhouse of a tough yet conflicted everyman whose weak spots are tested by the situation he finds himself in.
Den of Geek spoke with Hawke just before Regression opened to talk about the film’s themes, working with Amenabar and what Hawke gets out of working with different directors. We also touched on his upcoming projects: Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, on which Hawke reunites with his Training Day co-star, Denzel Washington, and Luc Besson’s epic space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (he’ll also be seen next month as jazz legend Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue).
Den of Geek: We’re roughly in the same age group. I kind of vaguely remember the Satanic Panic. Do you remember that as a teen?
Ethan Hawke: [laughs] Yeah. That was kind of alive when I was about 13, 14, 15. I remember that book that came out. People were really kind of drawing weird stars in high school. In truth, I find that stuff all pretty bogus. Alejandro is the reason I did this movie. I find him so interesting and I really enjoyed The Others, and I enjoyed (Open Your Eyes), and The Sea Inside. I thought he was an extremely interesting person.
It was clear he wanted to make a movie about why people believe in this stuff and why people want to be scared so much. He was kind of shocked by the success of The Others and how much people enjoy being scared. And what does it say about where we are and how much we like that and covet that experience? He was very interesting to talk to about that.
How did he present this material to you?
The truth is I went to meet him to tell him that I wasn’t going to do the movie. But he’s a very kind, and loving, and compelling person. I realized when I left the meeting that there aren’t that many people who really have a voice behind the camera. And I just wasn’t going to take it lightly that such a talented filmmaker wanted me to be in this movie.
Plus I really like working with people from other parts of the world. I had a great experience working with Alfonso Cuaron years ago. I worked with Jean-Francois Richet on Assault on Precinct 13, and Pawel Pawlikowski on Woman in the Fifth. I’ve learned a lot about movies by working with people who have a different vocabulary. If you grew up in Spain, you have a different vocabulary for cinema than somebody who grew up in Texas.
Do you feel like you take something away from that experience that you can apply when you get behind the camera yourself?
Definitely. One of the best aspects of growing older in this profession is I’ve really gotten…When you really work creatively with somebody, I mean it’s an intimate experience. You have to kind of share your imagination with another person. I’ve gotten to work with filmmakers from all over the world. I just finished a movie with an Irish film director, this woman who had a totally different life experience than me. She grew up on different movies than I did. She’s about the same age as we are. But growing up in Ireland at that time period was a really intense experience, and to grow up as a woman, and her parents’ experience. I’m just trying to say… It’s a very cool aspect of my job.
When I interview actors about films they are doing, a lot of times I hear things like “I really wanted to work with Christopher Nolan,” or “I really wanted to work with Richard Linklater.” When you say that, what are your expectations going in? What do you expect to get out of that experience, with that director?
That’s such a good question, man. I guess a little part of it is when you see how good Javier Bardem is in The Sea Inside, you think to yourself, “To get to that level of work, that director must be doing something on set to create a level of creativity that’s allowing for these people to do the kind of work that I want to do.” I guess you are just hoping that they are going to teach you something.
One of the things that I learned as a young kid working with De Niro is that directors don’t…Scorsese didn’t make De Niro great in Raging Bull. De Niro did. Even with something like Great Expectations, which I worked with him on — which is a good film, but it’s not Raging Bull — you see that he’s not waiting for somebody to give him permission to do the kind of work that he wants to do. He brought a tenacity and creativity to set that he didn’t wait for the director to say that it was OK to do that. It was very inspiring. But I think when actors say they want to work with this director or that one, they want to do that level of work, and we’re hoping that by osmosis it will transfer to us.
One of the things I thought was interesting, too, about this film was that there’s still a relevance to the way fear gets built up and manufactured over things that aren’t really there.
Yeah. I think it’s as alive today as it ever was. It is fascinating when you think about… We’ve lost a lot more people to drunk driving in the last few years than we have to terror. Fear can run wild in us. For example, the obvious example being how often people are terrified to fly when it’s a lot more dangerous to drive your kids to school than it is to get on an airplane, statistically.
You’ve played your share of cops before. Is there any way you prepare to play someone in law enforcement?
Every movie is different. This movie was strange because Alejandro wasn’t really operating in the real world. Any time on this movie I had an idea about the character, about what he might say or what he might dress like, it was just completely the antithetical to what Alejandro wanted. Slowly, I realized what we were doing was we were acting in Alejandro’s universe, not like the real universe — it was kind of a dream cinema landscape. He didn’t want us to really be in Minnesota or do Minnesota accents. And he didn’t want us to really dress the way a real cop would dress. It’s part of his voice as a filmmaker. I slowly realized I just had to give in and make his movie, because any idea I had was just dead wrong, or he didn’t like it anyway.
Is that interesting to be in that situation where you feel good enough and confident enough about the director even if he’s not necessarily taking your ideas?
I don’t know. Is it more fun when you feel like you are collaborating? Yeah. I enjoy that more. Alejandro is so clear and so kind that it was an enjoyable experience, and it was a new experience. I wanted to just try to give over and do what he wanted. Because I had a lot of respect for his films, and he asked in such a gentle and respectful way, so I just did.
When you have been acting as long as I have, you’re always trying to look for something new, like, “What’s going to help me grow as a performer?” I had a hunch that this might open up something. The thing that’s hard about acting, about four times a year I have to make a decision about which direction to take my career, about whether I’m going to do a play, or this kind of movie, or that kind of movie, or do I need to get paid? Have I done too many movies for free or I’ve got to keep prioritizing?
It’s a funny dance. I’ve been working freelance for 30 years. And I have to answer these kind of questions and try to maintain a level of quality. But I’m also trying to look for things that might open up a new possibility.
You have been filming The Magnificent Seven. Is that still in production?
We wrapped that.
Did you have scenes together with Denzel in that? This is kind of a reunion for you guys.
It was awesome. Are you kidding? It was so fantastic to be on set with Denzel and Antoine again, and also to not be doing Training Day 2, but to do something completely unique and different. Denzel and I have one scene in Magnificent Seven that’s one of my favorites that I filmed. And it was great to be on set with Antoine. I did Brooklyn’s Finest with him as well. I love working with him. He’s got a huge anti-authority streak. He makes really heartfelt, powerful movies that really come from his gut.
To be honest with you, it’s also the biggest movie of my career. I’ve never worked on a movie that was like $100 million in my life. And this was a huge movie — Chris Pratt, and Vincent D’Onofrio, and Peter Sarsgaard. It’s a great group of guys. So my hope is it will be good.
Do you stand around on set and say to each other, “All right. We’re doing The Magnificent Seven. We better not screw this up”?
Are you kidding? The pressure was so high. We said that every day. You don’t want to make a shitty version of Mag Seven. That’d just feel terrible. So, in a lot of ways, to do that you have to liberate…you can’t be scared every day. You’ve got to try to have fun and try to make a good movie your own way.
You are also doing Valerian with Luc Besson.
Yep. I play a little part and I just finished that. It was phenomenal. I felt like I was on the set of Fifth Element or something. It’s crazy and madcap. Luc Besson is a card carrying master of our profession. I really enjoyed being on the set even for just a few days with somebody who works at that level. I just think he’s wonderful.
Can you say anything about your role or what kind of character you play?
I can just tell you that I play one of the most exciting space pimps in the galaxy.
The 15th anniversary of Training Day is coming up this year. Any general recollections or thoughts looking back on that film and that experience?
It grew me into an adult actor. It really changed my life. I loved working with Denzel. It’s going to be interesting; they’re talking about trying to do a TV show of it now 15 years later. That will be interesting. If you can make a TV show…There’s so much about cops and cop violence and their relationship to the community and race. If somebody can really make it thought provoking, you know, and kind of carry the banner of that film into the next generation, that will be interesting to me.
But really, for me, I grew up loving old-school…When I was a kid we’d call them a New York actor movie where you’d see Pacino in Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon or Gene Hackman in French Connection or something. To really get to make a great cop drama, that’s kind of my goal of my career — to make a great sci-fi, a great western, a great romance. Try to do something excellent inside the different genres. My next dream is to make a movie as funny as Talladega Nights. That’s what I really want.
Regression is out in theaters now.